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Rising Test Scores Spark Renewed Interest In Longer D.C. School Days

School's out? Not so fast.
School's out? Not so fast.

Students at C.W. Harris Elementary School in Ward 7 recently posted some impressive gains in standardized tests, showing improvements in math proficiency of 11.9 percent and reading proficiency of 13.1 percent.

The school isn't an outlier, though: Malcolm X Elementary School in Ward 8 reached 13.1 percent in math and 20.2 percent in reading, and Nalle Elementary School in Ward 7 saw 27.2 percent and 16.2 percent jumps in math and reading, respectively. Four other schools showed similar big gains.

What do they all have in common? Longer school days. Now some D.C. officials are saying that more schools should follow suit.

This week D.C. officials proudly announced that students in D.C. public schools had posted the largest single gains in math and reading tests—3.6 percent in math, 3.9 percent in reading—since 2008. But one subtext of the good news was the fact that seven of the eight schools that offered extended instruction during the 2012-2013 school year saw their test scores grow more dramatically than their counterparts—10.6 percent in math and 7.2 in reading.

Those results were not lost on D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who sees the extended school day at the seven schools that posted high scores as an example of what works—and what should be taken to more schools citywide.

“Our goal is to scale the successful things that are happening. With the extended day piece, it is definitely our desire to extend the day at many more schools,” she said Wednesday.

Longer school days have gotten attention among many school reformers, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who in 2010 called for public school students to stay in school for up to 12 hours a day.

“Most people realize that our current day is based on the agrarian economy, and we don’t have too many kids working out in the fields nowadays. Schools in countries that are beating us are going to school 25-30 days more than us. If you practice basketball five times a week, you’re gonna be better than the people who practice three times a week," he said.

“We need some flexibility that would allow us to change the tour of duty for teachers," said Henderson, noting that not only could the day be longer, but teachers could come in and leave at different times and new class schedules could be adopted.

Despite the seeming evidence that a longer day produces better results, changing the length of the school day or school year in D.C. wouldn't be as easy as telling teachers and students to stay a little later in the day. The existing contract between D.C. and the Washington Teachers’ Union limits the work day to seven-and-a-half hours, less than what many education advocates say is ideal for troubled urban districts.

In pushing for a change earlier this year, Henderson had found an ally in Nathan Saunders, the union’s president, and the two had discussed a new contract that would include a longer school day. Saunders recently lost his re-election bid, though, and was replaced this week by Liz Davis, a former teacher who said Saunders wasn’t standing up for teachers.

In an interview with WAMU 88.5, Davis remained noncommittal about longer school days, saying that she first has to see what the research says about its effect on student performance.

"We are looking into research and data that supports the notion that a longer school day will yield the types of results that we want from students. If the chancellor has seen that research, I would be happy to read it," she said.

Davis adds that her focus will be on a "more productive school day for students" and less emphasis on testing.

But even if longer school days aren’t worked into a new contract, Council member David Catania (I-At Large), who chairs the D.C. Council’s education committee, may have an alternative. A bill he introduced in June would allow individual schools to apply for waiver from municipal regulations and other agreements if they can prove that student achievement would rise as a consequence.

These "innovation schools" would be modeled partly on the city's charter schools, which operate with more independence and have generally posted higher proficiency and graduation rates. At the end of the 2013 school year, composite proficiency in charter schools hit 55.8 percent; in public schools, by comparison, it only got to 48.4 percent.

If longer school days do come to pass, the next consideration would be their cost. According to school officials, the average annual cost of extended school days at each of the eight schools that adopted them over the last school year was $300,000.


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